The Princess and Curdie: Give it a miss

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews George MacDonald The Princess and CurdieThe Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

The Princess and the Goblin is one of the gems of children’s literature that deserves to sit on any bookshelf. The same can not be said of its sequel The Princess and Curdie, which differs so much in tone and content from the original that it is sometimes difficult to remember it is in fact a sequel to the dreamy, beautiful The Princess and the Goblin. Don’t get me wrong, I love George MacDonald‘s wonderful books, and although there are some nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout the book and Irene’s grandmother is as fascinating as ever (as well as being one of the few feminine representations of Christian mysticism in children’s literature) this particular MacDonald novel left me a little cold.

It begins extremely well: after the cataclysmic events at the conclusion of the previous book, the Princess Irene and her father have departed the ruined manor house for her father’s castle in the kingdom’s capital Gwyntystorm. Curdie and his parents have remained on the mountainside, continuing their humble existence as miners. But Irene’s magical great-great-great grandmother still has plans for the young miner, and after he kills one of her pigeons he remorsefully seeks her out in order to atone for his crimes. This is precisely what the goddess-like figure of the grandmother hoped for, and within a few chapters she has Curdie all set to go on a quest of his own.

But like any good fairy-godmother figure, she equips him with some magical gifts before he goes. The first is the ability to recognise a person’s inner being simply by shaking their hands (given via her magical fire-roses). The second is a bizarre looking creature named Lina that will accompany him on his journey. His destination is Gwyntystorm, to the Princess and the King, and the trouble that awaits him there. On the way he encounters several strange creatures; a ragtag bunch of indescribable animals (which serve a purpose later in the story) and a flock of sinister white birds (which don’t, and whose presence in the story is a bit of a mystery). Finally he reaches Gwyntystorm only to find the place is over-run with corruption and a sinister plot against the King.

However, there are several things that bothered me throughout the course of the story. First of all is the plot line of the incapacitated king being secretly manipulated by his ministers; even in MacDonald’s day this was a tired old story that’s been done to death in everything from ancient myth to Arthurian folklore to The Lord of the Rings.

Secondly is the myriad of plot devices that he brings into the story only to completely ignore later on. This includes the afore-mentioned white birds, but this is a minor occasion that is easily forgotten. More crucial is the character of Lina and the other creatures who are hinted to be transformed humans atoning for their sins; but their development never goes past this hint into something deeper.

Third is the treatment with which MacDonald handles many of his characters. On the course of the journey Curdie meets with hardly any decent or worthy people. With the exception of Derba and her young granddaughter, the entire world seems to be made up of rude, greedy, loathsome individuals who throw rocks, call names, set dogs on travellers and other heinous things. Of course, this may be truer to life than some would like to admit, but the inclusion of so many horrible people, both in the palace and in the streets is wearying after a while. It is especially painful when MacDonald gets to the climax of the story, when all the wrong-doers are inevitably punished for their sins. Perhaps some readers will get a sense of self-righteous pleasure out of the pain MacDonald places upon them, but for me it felt as though an almost sadistic pleasure was taken in terrifying and destroying these people: a man whose nose is bitten all the way through, women and children are scared witless, a man’s finger is bitten off, and MacDonald’s own words: “they were smeared with rancid dripping, their faces were rubbed in maggots.” My ideas of Christianity and its meanings are based around redemption, forgiveness and grace; yet I found very little of such things here. All the things I have described are found within the chapter: “Vengeance” and continues in “More Vengeance.” Didn’t God say: “Vengeance is mine?” Isn’t wrath one of the seven deadly sins?

Finally the King himself goes out, but by this stage I had to wonder: is there anyone left in his city to govern? By making the city of Gwyntystorm such a vile place I found no pleasure in the characters’ successful defence of it, and the final page of the book that recounts the ultimate fate of the city is utterly unappealing.

I hate writing bad reviews, but I really didn’t like The Princess and Curdie. Don’t let this put you off other George MacDonald books, especially The Princess and the Goblin, but I recommend you give this one a miss.

The Princess and Curdie — (1882) Publisher: Princess Irene’s great-grandmother has a testing task for Curdie. He will not go alone though, as she provides him with a companion — the oddest and ugliest creature Curdie has ever seen, but one who turns out to be the most loyal friend he could have hoped for.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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